Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Deeper Meaning of Fox News Dumping Sarah Palin

How the mighty have fallen.  Sarah Palin, that inscrutable media grifter from the tundra has just lost her gig with Fox News.  She will no doubt soon find herself in that place so dreaded by celebrities and fame mongers: the "where are they now?" file.

The simple explanation for Fox's parting of ways with Palin would be that she passed her expiration date in a political scene where trends and personalities come and go with the seasons.  That might be true, but I see a deeper game at play.  This is actually part of a larger change in strategy on the part of the establishment of the Republican party, for whom Fox News acts as a mouthpiece, agitator, and propaganda arm.

If you remember, back in 2009, the Republicans reacted to president Obama's election and relative popularity with a campaign of massive obstruction, resistance, and paranoia.  They filibustered at truly unprecedented levels, they began making idle and constant comparisons between the president's policies and Nazism, and they unleashed the dogs of political war in the form of the Tea Party church and king mob.  Fox News threw down the gauntlet by giving a big platform to Glenn Beck, a paranoid ranter with the affect of a cult leader who soon found many ready acolytes.  For the first time in decades, the Republican party establishment let their Bircher id run riot with apocalyptic fury.  The gambit worked in turning out the votes and shifting momentum back in 2010.

The raison d'etre of the party was apparent all along, and even stated publicly by the likes of Mitch McConnell: to make Barack Obama a one term president.  After failing miserably in this quest, despite favorable economic conditions for an opposition challenge, it seems the party of no is having to re-strategize.  They have decided to put off the debt ceiling battle, they have relented on Sandy funding, and they are making some baby steps towards moderate compromise.

This is where Palin comes in.  She is the avatar of the "turn out the base" strategy, and pretty well pioneered it in the 2008 election, when she "went rogue" and shot her mouth off about "real Americans" and took the low road in her attacks on Obama.  She quickly gained a following in the conservative ranks, who had found a representative for their resentments against Barack Obama, as well as a symbol of all they claimed to stand for.  The enthusiastic response she received from the party faithful on the campaign trail made the party big-wigs realize the potential of "take my country back" populism, and certainly helped pave the way for the party's co-option of Beck and the Tea Party.

The last election seems to have shown the limitations of that strategy.  Nowadays the party pushes forward the likes of Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.  Much of this is to bolster facetious notions that the GOP is "young" and "diverse," but the new faces of the party are also more the old-school economic conservatives rather than the nationalistic rabble-rousers railing on behalf of "real America."  Republicans seem to think they can expand their appeal beyond older white people by dampening down the herrenvolk nationalism and playing up the Reaganite contempt for the downtrodden.  That, at the root, is why Sarah Palin is looking for a new gig.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Track of the Week: The Temptations, "I Can't Get Next to You"

I've been a big fan of classic soul music going all the way back to my childhood, but I've let my love of the genre slip a bit in the last couple of years.  This week I blew the dust off of some of my old favorite soul songs, and remembered just what I'd been missing.

I'm particularly partial to the work The Temptations did in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when producer Norman Whitfield added a hard edge to their sweet harmonies and The Funk Brothers (Motown's house band) was at the height of their powers.  Their more political songs from this era ("Ball of Confusion," "Cloud Nine," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" etc.) are probably the best known, but I think "I Can't Get Next to You" truly distills the Temps' essence.

It starts in an off-kilter fashion, with a clapping club audience, and someone imploring "hold it, listen!" introducing a polite blues piano line before the song kicks into motion with some stabbing horns and rough-elbowed funk.  It's a reminder that the Funk Brothers were mostly jazz musicians, and knew how to make the songs SWING.  The rhythm guitars, so woefully absent in modern day music, chug along, daring you not to bob your head.  On top of it all are the band's collection of great and divergent voices, hitting high falsettos matched with baritone croons.  Eddie Kendricks' delivery of the line "I can build a castle from a single grain of sand" still gets me every time.

If that's not awesome enough, the bridge, with the country-tinged guitar and sublime "woo-woos" is a wonderfully unexpected delight.  Things get absolutely transcendent near the end when the guitar reels off a high-pitched cry of anguish before the vocals come in to take the song home with urgent desperation expressing an unbearable desire.  It's one of the greatest five second snippets in the history of popular music.

The song also isn't the Temps old type of mellow love song ("My Girl," "The Way You Do the Things You Do") nor "message" record.  It's a cry of extreme romantic and sexual frustration over not being able to woo someone that your soul burns for.  Perhaps that's why I first got drawn to this song in my younger, swashbuckling days.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Do We Ever Stop Having Awkward Conversations With Our Parents?

I was raised in an extremely Catholic family, and was a fervent believer as a child.  That included five years as an altar boy, and a period of time, around the age of 13, when I seriously considered a career in the priesthood.  My parents are anti-abortion activists, and when I was younger, I came along to "life day" protests with them.  During my teen years, that faith began to wane, especially after I learned more about the history of the Church and developed an interest in the ideas of other religions.  Even though I went to a Jesuit university as an undergraduate, I came in as a doubting agnostic, and ended my time there as a self-avowed atheist.

The whole time I kept these beliefs a secret from my family.  One of my gay friends used to tease me about this, urging me to "come out" as he had done with his parents (with something much more stigmatized) and that I was being chickenshit.  I wanted to, but never could, since I felt that they would think I was somehow rejecting them or putting them down.

As time went on, I dropped my atheism for my former agnosticism, and would still occasionally attend mass.  I got a great deal of enjoyment out of this during my time in Germany, with its gorgeous medieval churches and dedicated parishioners who acted like they really wanted to be there.  I regained my old appreciation for my the mystical and the power of ritual.  In recent years, after going to a close friend's church, I began attending Episcopal services, and felt something important inside of me rekindled.  I am still not a completely committed believer, but I feel something stir in my soul again, and I enjoy being around good-hearted people who really care about making the world a better place.

This is all background to a phone conversation this evening, when I told my parents that the reason we haven't baptized the girls is that I do not wish to remain affiliated with the Catholic church.  I framed it in positive terms, in that I felt more comfortable in a different faith community, rather than going negative and cataloging my many deep frustrations and critiques of the Catholic church.  However, there were still some awkward moments, to say the least.  I'm thirty-seven, but I felt fifteen again.  As I grow further and further apart from the person I used to be, I wonder if these moments will ever go away.

I always fear that the decisions I've made with my life are interpreted by them to be rejections and repudiations of their love.  I went into an unorthodox career, married late, left Catholicism, and settled down in the dreaded land "back East."  As they get more set in their ways, and I get to be more confident in revealing my true self to them, I wonder what kinds of strain our relationship will face.  I guess dealing with the ensuing awkwardness is a worthy price to be paid for living in the truth rather than hiding behind twenty years of lies.

Classic Music Video of the Week: Faith No More, "Epic"

Conventional wisdom tells us that the rock music scene was moribund and dominated by awful hair metal in the late 80s and early 90s, until Nirvana came on the scene with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at the end of 1991, and banished the likes of Warrant and Poison to the musical netherworld that spawned them.

While this is a mostly fair interpretation of the nature of mainstream rock at the time, it misses the fact that much more interesting music was already bubbling up well in advance of "Teen Spirit."  A great example is "Epic," by Faith No More, a video MTV practically played to death in the summer of 1990.  There's rapping, a monstrous guitar solo, and sideways rhythms, things you'd never see together back in those days.  (The airplay prompted me to go out and get a cassingle of this song at Wal-Mart for the princely sum of 99 cents.)

This was a pretty clear case of a group doing music much more progressive and challenging than the likes of Nelson or Skid Row, but getting away with it because of an eye-catching video.  Most of the video is in the band performance genre, with lead singer Michael Patton doing all kinds of manic things and mugging for the camera in a self-consciously over the top fashion.  He punches himself in the head with boxing gloves, flexes his muscles in a rainstorm, etc.  The end, however, made it an MTV classic.

After a few minutes of hard-hitting prog metal music, "Epic" closes with a mournful piano line, juxtaposed with a fish out of water flopping on the ground in slow motion.  Once the piano player gets up from his bench, the piano gets blowed up real good.  The end of "Epic" is trash music video making at its most intriguing.  Gratuitous explosions and seemingly profound surreal images without any inherent meaning are as good as it got for bored teenagers like myself in the days before the internet.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Why Sgt. Pepper the Motion Picture Might Be the Most Transcendently Bad Film Ever

I've often said of William Shatner that his schtick cannot be called irony, that he in fact transcends irony. There is not a word in the English language that can quite describe him.  Flipping channels a couple of days ago, I was reminded of this when I caught a couple minutes of a film that has always left me even more dumbfounded than Shatner's rendition of "Rocket Man": the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie. It is awful on a truly transcendant level, so awful that seeing for the first time was a unique experience, like watching a supernova explode or a baby calf being born. It was so inhumanly awful that I enjoyed it more than just about any other film I've seen in recent years.  Something this wretched is an accomplishment, a challenge to the stars with a raised fist daring the fates to make something worse. (Xanadu comes close, but no cigar.)

I'll begin with the premise, which sounded so asinine that I steered clear of this movie for a long time: the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton play Beatles songs as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. To answer your question, yes, this is 1978, the only year it would have been possible to construct this Frankenstein's monster of camp. They all have names from Beatles songs, and have dedicated themselves to saving the town of Heartland from the machinations of Mean Mr Mustard. Frampton's love interest is named "Strawberry Fields," Steve Martin (in his first film role!) sings "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" as a demented doctor, and George Burns plays Mr. Kite. You truly haven't lived until you've watched him sing "Fixing a Hole" in a Nimoy-worthy performance. I'm still trying to cleanse my ears with the steel wool in my sink, which is less painful than hearing it again.

Frampton and the Brothers Gibb utter not a word of dialogue, they mostly clown and make silly faces for the camera in a manner reminiscent of a home video recording, rather than a multi-million dollar motion picture. Beatles songs play through almost the whole film, their vitality sapped by hokey arrangements, Frampton's shite singing, and the worst kind of cocaine-infused late seventies soft rock accompaniment. Robin Gibb's singing of "Oh! Darling," and some spirited performances by Earth, Wind, and Fire and Aerosmith are about the only musical numbers where I didn't cry with pain or laugh with incredulity (especially when two vocoderized robots sing "She's Leaving Home.") It takes a lot of effort to completely drain the life out of a good song, a task worthy of Fred Durst-esque levels of suckitude, but this film manages to ruin at least a dozen classic McCartney-Lennon compositions. Ruin might be too kind. These sonic gems are deflowered, disembowled, dismembered, and their corpses desecrated.

And then there's the contextual placement of the songs in the movie. The character Strawberry Fields actually sings the song "Strawberry Fields," apparently about herself, to herself. When Barry Gibb sings "A Day in the Life," he utters the line "I'd love to turn you on" to his BROTHERS! (When he combs his prodigious disco mane during the line "got up, got outa bed, dragged a comb across my head" I let a cackle almost painful in its violence.) "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is sung by a sultry women named, you guessed it, Lucy, but in a menacing tone that completely belies the fanciful, pleasant world evoked by the lyrics. Best of all, Sgt. Pepper (played by a prancing, grinning Billy Preston) resurrects Strawberry Fields from the grave while singing "Get Back," referring to her as "Loretta" and completely distorting the irony of the song's lyrics. (At least Preston played on the original track.)

At this point I didn't think the film could possibly go any lower or be any more ridiculous, but boy, was I wrong! It ends with a bunch of mid-level 70s celebrities singing the reprise of the title song, making poorly choreographed disco-by-numbers moves in the process. For some reason the camera keeps finding Carol Channing, whose eerie grin unfortunately distracts from a young Tina Turner standing right beside her. Many of the assembled celebs look bored, stoned, hungover, or all three. The hokey dancing, awful wardrobes, shaggy haircuts, and complete lack of taste on display manage to encapsulate all that was wrong about the 70s and put it into one coke-addled package.

When I finished watching Pepper, I then realized its disturbing implications. Is it actually so bad that it is beyond bad? That made me wonder if there is anything in the world that is as good as Pepper is bad. Can evil in fact sink deeper than virtue can soar high? Furthermore, does a truly horrible piece of culture leave a more lasting imprint on my psyche than a sublime one? Or is something this bad sublime in its own way? Needless to say, I think I'll have to see it again.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

It's Time to Reform The House of Representatives

When I studied European history back in high school, I took a particular interest in the various reform acts in Great Britain that changed the role of Parliament and representation within it.  The British system seemed very capable of making needed changes in the face of the popular demands and changing times.  These changes were driven in part by the fact that in any representative democracy, it is the lower house of the legislature that is supposed to reflect most the direct, popular will.

 In America, this is not the case at all.  Representatives claim to "represent" over half a million people, and likely do so in tailor-drawn districts that ensure that they only have to listen to the wishes of party stalwarts.  Despite the fact that Republican candidates got fewer votes in House elections last year than Democratic candidates, they still control it by a comfortable margin.  House members are not accountable to their constituents, and often never have to seriously contest their re-election.

There are a few steps available to us that can help remedy this situation.  First, we must recognize that the Constitution's mechanism of having state legislatures draw up districts needs to be tossed out.  The authors of the Constitution did not foresee the power of political parties, and today districts are basically drawn in the partisan interest of whatever party happens to control a particular state's legislature in the period after the census.  The district lines have thus little to do with democracy, and a lot to do with party politics.  In states like California, which have put districting in the hands of impartial bodies, the result has been more competitive elections.  Leaving it in the hands of politicians leads to the shameful fiasco this week in Virginia, where state-level districts were drawn up by Republicans to dilute the votes of African-Americans.

We also need more representatives.  The number has been limited to 435 since the early 1900s, when the nation's population was a third as big as it is now.  In Great Britain, Parliament has over six hundred representatives despite being much smaller than the United States.  The very size of constituencies makes drawing meaningful districts difficult.  It certainly makes it hard for voters to call their representatives to account.

It's all well and good to reform the filibuster in the Senate, but without real changes to the House and the way it is constituted we will continue with the current static, unresponsive system.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Track of the Week: Tom Waits, "Warm Beer And Cold Women"

[Editor's Note: I've enjoyed writing entries in my classic albums series, but as much as I want to revive the album as a musical delivery system, by doing so I have been neglecting the glory of singular songs. Ergo, I have a new series: Track of the Week.]

Tom Waits has spent the last thirty years distancing himself from his original personae and style, preferring sound experiments, jumpy rhythms, and distortion to his days as a drunken, piano-playing jazzbo raconteur.  And truth be told, I think the album that marked this transition to something more challenging (Swordfishtrombones) is my favorite in his catalog.

That said, there are some nights when I'm too fatigued to be avant-garde.  After a long day of educating teenagers and navigating the usual bullshit and politics, I need comfort in the form of a glass of bourbon and some soothing music.  There is no better aural balm for times like this than Waits' early work, and no song more fitting than "Warm Beer And Cold Women."  The title itself perfectly evokes the essence of everyday frustration, the feeling that it's just one damn hassle after another.  'Cuz once the bourbon glow leads you to bed, you still have to wake up the next day and face the same old shit all over again.  It's the little moments like this song that keep it from getting unbearable.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Consolation of Bars in Wintertime

Back when I lived by myself, before being married and also while I suffered being 1,500 miles from my beloved spouse during most of the first two years of our marriage, this time of year was made barely bearable by going to bars.  I am very susceptible to wintertime depression, made worse because I love being outside.  I still remember Sunday afternoons when I lived in Michigan when I insisted on taking long walks despite the icy winds and falling snow.  Some of those Sundays I trekked the fifteen blocks or so to my favorite bar.

Walking was wise, both because I usually left my local in a state where I had no business being behind the wheel, and because when the snow piled up, spaces in the parking lot became more scarce, and the entrances to said lot treacherous.  (It was on a major thoroughfare, so the plows constantly dumped huge walls of snow in the entrance.  This also meant the sidewalk in front was impassable, so I always walked to the bar via the back alley.)

To my mind, this place was the Platonic ideal of what a bar ought to be.  It was dark, with wood tables and booths but bereft of idiotic knick-knacks.  There was just enough space to fit a large number of people, but it was still cozy.  The jukebox was one of those olden CD boxes, and was well-stocked with good music, a balanced mix of hipsterish stuff (Elvis Costello, Radiohead) and old chestnuts (Rolling Stones, AC/DC.)  The beer selection was fantastic and reflected west Michigan's bounty of exceptional brews.  You could order up a damn fine olive burger and Philly steak sandwich, or just help yourself to some free popcorn, if so inclined.  Best of all, the staff were model bartenders and waitresses.  The main guy seemed able to hold about 20 orders in his head, and always knew what new beer on tap I'd like.

The place was perhaps too good.  My friends and I took happy hour there at least twice a week.  On Sundays, however, I usually went by myself, out of pure loneliness and the desire to spend time with other people.  There was also the $4.75 special on pitchers of Pabst and, amazingly, free pizza.  Yes, that's right, free pizza.  This confluence of factors, combined with Sunday football, hockey, and basketball games on the TV, drew in an audience of lonely, single, thirtyish dudes like myself.  I would order me up a whole pitcher of Pabst, and drink it down while cadging free slices between bullshitting about the Lions' playoff chances or the relative merits of Steely Dan.  Occasionally I would stare out the window at the funeral home across the street with two impossibly long Polish names, and think morbid thoughts.  (This was northeast Grand Rapids, after all.)

Nowadays I have the love of my life and two supercute babies at my side, and my Sunday afternoons are not the long stretches of dread and loneliness that they used to be.  That said, I pine to spend a day at my old local, with my old friends and the therapists behind the bar that helped me survive two unforgiving Michigan winters.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Is a Second Term Slump Avoidable for President Obama?

The inauguration is coming tomorrow, after perhaps the most eventful and contentious lame-duck session of Congress in our time.  We seem to have collectively erased our memories of the 2012 election, despite the fact that it dominated public discourse for well over a year.  Perhaps the double-whammy of Sandy and Sandy Hook are to blame for the amnesia, but I think the Right has done a pretty successful job of so thoroughly ignoring the results that their defeat is no longer discussed.

Well, whether they like it or not, Barack Obama is starting four more years in the White House tomorrow.  Back in 2009 I would have been ecstatic by this prospect, but now I'm pretty much just exhausted, as happy as I am.  The intransigence and extremism of the opposition party doesn't really give one much hope over the president's prospects for bringing new initiatives forth and getting them turned into law.  I also have the sinking feeling that he will experience the second-term slump that even his most illustrious predecessors suffered from.

After winning a landslide in 1936, FDR went on to get involved in the aborted court-packing scheme and made cuts to his New Deal programs that brought on a recession.  When his second term ended, his political standing was much weakened.  Nixon didn't make it through his second term due to Watergate, and Reagan's second was also bedeviled by scandal, along with his increasing senility.  The economy boomed in Clinton's second term, but he was impeached and almost didn't make it out intact.  Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, crashed and burned with the deterioration of Iraq, Katrina, and judicial scandals.  Sometimes I feel that the pressures of the American presidency are such that it's impossible to sustain a high standard of performance for more than four years.

One reason Obama might be different is that unlike other presidents, he did not have a honeymoon period in his first term.  From the beginning, his political opponents have obstructed and blockaded him at every turn.  This experience has hopefully kept him sharp and his team from getting complacent.  Obama also does not suffer from the deficiencies of other past presidents.  He is younger than Eisenhower and Reagan, and not scandal-prone like Nixon and Clinton.  He is not a cowboy buffoon like W, whose idiocy was not fully exposed to the American public until it was too late.  My main fear is that his intellectual detachment will be more manifest once his fatigue with the job sets in.  It just might get too tiring to force himself to do the work of retail politics that he today seems to approach with disdain.

I think the gun control issue will very quickly define the nature of his second term.  For the first time since the early 1990s, there appears to be a groundswell of support for gun control, an issue Obama seemed happy to completely avoid to this point.  That of course never stopped the gun nuts from spinning paranoid fantasies about Obama's true intentions.  They went out and bought guns and ammo by the barrel-full when he was elected in anticipation of new gun control laws that never came.  For his first four years, Obama seemed to think that even raising the gun issue was out of the question.

Current events certainly now make the gun nuts feel as if their fever dreams were right all along.  By taking on the NRA and the hordes of wingnut "patriots," Obama is doing political combat with the faction of the Right that seems to hate and fear him the most.  If he can get his legislation passed, this would be a political de-pantsing of epic proportions, and would clearly send a signal that the president will be in the driver's seat for his second term.  Defeating one of Washington's most powerful and fearsome special interests, a lobby that has scared Democrats from even talking about guns, would give Obama the kind of political mojo he needs to get through his term without a slump.  I could even see the Republicans giving way on the debt ceiling issue in this case, since they would finally have to acknowledge his position of power.

If the president is unable to get much done on gun control, it will greatly embolden those who despise him the most.  He will have spent much political capital on a losing issue, and will most likely spend the rest of his term playing defense.  A similar thing happened to W, who floated the idea of Social Security privatization at the start of his second term, only to have it smacked down faster than my 18-year old self was when trying to talk to members of the opposite sex.  By tackling a brand new issue and a powerful lobby in the bargain, Obama is taking a huge risk, even despite the public's horrified reaction to Sandy Hook.

Mark my words, as goes the gun issue, so goes Obama's second term.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Things I Learned the Hard Way on the Tenure Track

This week I got the happy news that the top journal in my field has asked me to write another book review for them.  I had written two others that were well-received by the editor, but this is the first request I've had since leaving academia and teaching at a private school.  It feels good not to be forgotten by my former life.  Anyway, this event has prompted some reflection on what I managed to accomplish and where I failed in my academic career.

I came into my tenure-track job with two years as a "visiting" professor behind me, so I though I was wise to the wily ways of academia. I learned that it is entirely unfair, that getting a job really boils down to "fit," and that the university runs on cheap labor. However, the three years I spent at as an assistant professor at a third tier public university in Texas were a wholly different and further learning experience. Here are a few hard-bought lessons/realizations, aimed at those on the job market this year just lucky enough to find that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  (Finding a pot of gold is just as likely as getting a good job in the current market.)  For all the other t-t folk out there, feel free to provide any I missed in the comments.

The Intellectual Stimulation of Grad School Never Returns
When I was a visitor, I noticed that parts of my brain were beginning to stagnate. My job then, as on the tenure track, did not require me to find great insights into scholarship. Instead, my main task was to find out how to take complex historical events and distill them into hour-long chunks of knowledge that an undergrad can comfortably digest. I still managed to get some research done, but there were few intellectual conversations among my colleagues, partially due to lack of interest and partially due to lack of time.  A very large percentage of academics simply check out from being scholars once they hit tenure, or even before, as was the case at my old school.

If a University has a Bad Reputation for Faculty Retention, it is Usually Well Earned
To keep myself from getting in trouble, I'll just say that I learned this one the hard way.  This is an increasingly widespread issue, since schools are using the punishing market to squeeze faculty at every turn, and then remind them they are recplaceable once the tweed army starts to flex its muscles.

At Less Exalted Universities, the Values of the Institution Trump Those of the Profession
During my three years on the tenure track I worked hard to succeed according to the dictates of my former profession. I published articles, secured a book contract, taught many new courses, and took an active role in university service. However, I have seen others accomplish much less in these traditional categories of merit, yet reap much bigger rewards. Why? Because they did the odd things that the institution cares about, things that at most universities might be considered extraneous or even tacky. Here's a piece of advice for all the newbies on the tenure track: keep in mind that many of your senior colleagues might have very little connection to the profession, and a great deal to their employer. It behooves you to do what they want if you'd like to get the goodies your department doles out (raises, sabbaticals, etc) even if it's the kind of thing your advisor would never tell you to do.

You Need to Learn How to Say "No"
I was thankfully mostly spared from a common pitfall of junior scholars: overextension. In many departments a great deal of the service work, especially the most menial kind, is foisted on the new faculty. If those faculty are female or people of color, the burden and pressures are usually that much greater.  No matter how much you might think you have to do everything you are asked, occassionally it's good to set boundaries by saying no, especially if you keep getting asked.

Accomplishing Too Much Makes You a Target
Workers in all walks of life often resent the super-keener, because they end up pushing a speed-up of work for everyone. Academics are no different. If you make yourself conspicious by your accomplishments, you may earn the dislike of those who wish to just skate by, or feel threatened by your abilities. When I got publications as a visitor, the news was not praised by the full profs who had never published anything in their careers. Similarly, I know of adjuncts who have received worried looks rather than praise for the publications from department chairs. Although the reactions aren't as extreme for t-t faculty with stellar publications, I have heard them described as "divisive" by senior faculty at my old job.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Thoughts and Observations Gleaned From Months of Civil War Reading

As I mentioned a short time ago, I have spent the last few months indulging in a newfound interest in the Civil War.  Unlike in my youth, I have been delving into political machinations and social changes rather than troop movements and Springfield rifles.  I still have not gotten my fix, and am looking for even more books to read on the topic.  In any case, here are some ideas I've had since my reading binge began.

The Civil War was America's real revolution
I'd already thought this, but my readings have only confirmed it.  Of course, the opportunities of Reconstruction were not fulfilled, but after the war slavery was dead, industrialization had been catalyzed, and the federal government's role had been expanded and solidified.  In fact, slavery was dead mostly because of the actions of slaves themselves, not least those men who escaped and then fought in the Union army in disproportionate numbers, risking death or re-enslavement if captured in battle.  I am more convinced than ever that the Tea Party's fetishization of the Founders and Constitution are a repudiation of America's second founding, represented by the 14th Amendment.

Civil War generals had to risk their lives
I'd known this for a long time, of course, but I had read battlefield accounts back in the late 1980s before America's unending war spree.  It's amazing to read about generals up with their men as the bullets fly, urging them on and risking death. (Not all generals in that war did this, but a great many did.)  I don't know how those who so willingly order their troops to their deaths without risking their own lives can live with themselves.

The Civil War is fascinating in a global context
Around the time of the Civil War, there were many other similar conflicts, political revolutions and national unification projects.  For example: the Taiping Rebelllion, the Great Reforms (which banned serfdom) in Russia, the wars of unification in Germany and Italy, the Paraguayan War, Mexico's war to push out the French, the Great Uprising in India, and the Meiji Restoration in Japan.  It's no wonder, then, that this is the era in which Marx composed Kapital, his magnum opus on the operations of the new global capitalist economy.  In a lot of ways, my interest in the Civil War has been driven by a deep interest in the 1850s-1860s from my training as a Europeanist.  I like to think of this time as modernity's horizon, and historians of America could very much profit from making comparisons between the American Civil War and other, similar developments at the time.

Lincoln was a master politician, not a god
I'd already come to this conclusion, with the full knowledge of Lincoln's infamous comments about racial equality during the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  However, I have won a newfound appreciation for what a masterful politician he was.  Another Republican president may have moved faster on emancipation, but probably would not have been as skillful at managing the political hazards involved with it.  Lincoln was not ahead of his society when it came to slavery or race, but he did very deftly manage to bring about change by correctly reading the political winds.  These days, I think that's the best we can hope for from a president, and the quality that I like about the current occupant of the White House.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Is "Southern Honor" Partly to Blame for the Debt Ceiling Hostage Crisis?

I lived in East Texas, a region I see as the westernmost edge of the South, for three years.  During my time there I immersed myself in the history of the South in an attempt to make sense of a place that seemed so alien to a native Midwesterner such as myself.  It is still a place that fascinates and horrifies me in just about equal measure, where I love the food, music and a great many of the people, but despise the religiosity, bigotry, and reactionary politics that still often reside there.  It is certainly a changing region full of paradoxes, with a black bourgeoisie dominating the growing metropolis of Atlanta, culturally progressive college towns like Chapel Hill, and and influx of immigrants.  On the other hand, a large percentage of white southerners still sympathize with the Confederacy.

Both WJ Cash's The Mind of the South and Bertram Wyatt-Brown's Southern Honor helped me understand white southern culture and its historical roots.  These authors talk at length about the South's hierarchical nature, and the role honor plays in that hierarchy.  Even after the demise of slavery, the southern white men who hold positions of power expect to be masters, and others to respect their honor by giving them due deference.  The southern politicos in Washington have had it easy over the past few decades; Obama is the first Yankee liberal to occupy the White House since JFK.  Southern conservatives have not reacted well to this development, to say the least.

George Packer, writing in The New Yorker this week, makes a decent case for the growing political isolation of the (white) South.  He notes that when Congress voted on the fiscal cliff deal, Republicans in other regions were willing to accept it, but Southern Republicans voted against it 81-12.  That got me thinking.  Is this intransigence, both on the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling not just the outcome of radical conservatism, but also of southern honor?

The men and women (but mostly men) so opposed to Obama in Congress seem to dislike not just policies, but the very fact that he presumes to tell these politicians what to do.  The president has witnessed the kinds of slights and insults from Congress that I have never seen before.  (Joe Wilson's "you lie!" outburst, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell refusing to pick up the phone, Louie Gohmert comparing Obama to Hitler in a House floor speech, etc.)  Much of this has to do with racism and the current heated-up partisanship, but I think both of these things are intensified by the role southern honor is playing.  A certain brand of white southerner simply will not cotton to an "uppity" (in their mind) black northerner setting the agenda or making them do something against their will, even if it be the people's desire.  They will filibuster, obstruct, go over the fiscal cliff and even default on the nation's debt before their position of mastery is compromised.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Historian of Modern Germany Debunks the "Hitler was Pro-Gun Control" Mythology

Now that gun control is back on the national agenda, the Hitler metaphors are flying fast and furious again.  They were last lobbed about during the heady days of the Tea Party's ascendance and its attendant crusade against universal health care.  Back then the pea-brained likes of Louie Gohmert and Jim DeMint warned of a path to fascism, now it's the NRA and Drudge Report likening gun control to Nazism.

As someone who has spent years studying modern German history, and has the degrees to prove it, I feel it is my special duty to debunk this garbage.  Lying behind both the Tea Party and gun proliferators' use of Hitler is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and historical context of the Third Reich.  The misconceptions about that murderous regime are pretty much accepted in mainstream American life, and the Right has done an able job of exploiting them.

In our day the Nazis have been completely dishistoricized, turned into stand-ins for remorseless evil.  There is no more effective way to label your political opponents bad and dangerous than by making such comparisons.  Most Americans seem to think that Hitler was some kind of evil genius, that his followers were mindless automatons, and that his whole regime was one man's psychopathic power-trip.  This cartoon-villain understanding of the Hitler regime, reinforced in countless films like Inglorious Basterds and Raiders of the Lost Ark, makes it easy for the public to be swayed by the NRA's Hollywood scenario.  In their counter-narrative, ordinary Germans (and German Jews in particular) could have grabbed their guns and brought down the Third Reich, if only those guns hadn't been taken from them.

This view of history is idiotic and deluded at best.  The esteemed historian Omer Bartov, in a recent Salon article, makes it clear that even if Hitler's opponents had guns, it would not have changed a thing: “Just imagine the Jews of Germany exercising the right to bear arms and fighting the SA, SS and the Wehrmacht. The [Russian] Red Army lost 7 million men fighting the Wehrmacht, despite its tanks and planes and artillery. The Jews with pistols and shotguns would have done better?”  The people who bring up these misguided Hollywood scenarios are also likely ignorant of how the Nazi state treated insurgents.  Guerilla attacks on German troops on the Eastern Front often resulted in reprisal executions that killed hundreds for every German slain.  The conspirators against Hitler in the failed 1944 plot on his life ended up being horrifically tortured and killed, their agonies filmed for the Fuehrer's amusement.  Hitler responded to the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris at the hands of Herschel Grynszpan in 1938 by unleashing the horrific Night of Broken Glass as vengeance.  In the improbable scenario of German Jews (who were a very small part of the population) arming themselves and shooting Nazis, it only would have meant much worse visited upon the Jewish population.

One especially major problem with the pro-gun use of the Nazis as a cautionary tale is usually the case with other would-be invokers of the Third Reich.  Namely, they just take things completely out of context, that context being the Nazi ideology of racist nationalism.  Just as communism was the philosophy behind the Soviet Union, the Third Reich was a racial state governed by the principles of racialized nationalism.  For example, abortion rights foes like to invoke Hitler as a supporter of abortion because the Nazi state pushed "non-Aryan" and disabled women to terminate their pregnancies.  However, abortions were banned for Aryans, a change from the more liberal laws of the preceding Weimar Republic.  (In this light the Nazis were more anti than pro abortion.)  Anyone who tries to analogize about Nazi Germany without taking its ideological basis into consideration will inevitably go wrong.

Context greatly illuminates the issue of gun control in Nazi Germany.  As the Salon article notes, Germany's 1938 laws on firearms were actually less restrictive than those of the Weimar government, which had enacted strict gun control at a time when armed militias threatened the stability of the nation after World War I.  They were only more restrictive for Jews and other targets of Nazi oppression.  To contextualize further, German laws at the time restricted Jews in all kinds of ways, banning them from universities and other public places, and restricting them from engaging in most professions while effectively making it next to impossible to own their own businesses.  These restrictions are only the tip of the iceberg, and the restriction on guns a mere fleck on that tip.  The prohibition on Jews owning guns had little to do with any Nazi desire for gun control, and a whole lot to do with creating racial outcasts.

Here's one last bit of context, and one that's highly disturbing.  The evil villain view of Hitler leads one to believe that the majority of Germans did not like this tyrant, but were kept in line by the security appartus of the Nazi state.  On the contrary, while the Nazis never got a majority of votes in legitimate elections, once they consolidated power Hitler gained the support of the vast majority of the population.  The most disturbing thing to me about the Third Reich is that it needed popular support to enact its agenda, and the public was more than willing to oblige.  If ordinary Germans had greater access to firearms at the time, I can't imagine it would have made much of a difference.  Armed insurrections most likely would have been used by the state to justify even greater control and authority.

The decontextualized, inaccurate understanding of Nazi Germany used by the Right is one of their most pernicious tactics, since it abuses the historical record while poisoning our political discourse.  It also distracts from the fact that firearms kill thirty thousand people in America every year.  400,000 Americans died fighting against Hitler and his allies in World War II, at our current rate we're losing that number to guns deaths every thirteen years or so.  I think it's time we focus on the real carnage going on right now, rather than ghosts of tyrants based off of a willfully wrongheaded interpretation of the past.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

New Constitutional Amendments I'd Like to See (But Probably Never Will)

Since the election, I have been amazed at how little has changed.  The president won, but he still seems to be playing defense, and is having to face a nomination fight over Chuck Hagel, who's a bloody Republican, for crying out loud.  Gridlock almost let the austerity bomb go off, and now it seems that Republicans are gunning for another debt ceiling hostage crisis.  Much needed hurricane aid for the northeast has been stalled, and Congress seems to have little interest in making itself better than head lice and genital warts in the public esteem.

Many of these problems have to do with the way that our Constitution allows the system to be manipulated.  It's totally unlikely that we will ever come up with a new Constitution, so the only way to make the system work better would be through Constitutional amendments.  Considering the 75% threshold of states needed combined with our divided political system, that won't happen anytime soon. Still, here are some rather common-sensical amendments I'd like to see, some of which apply to gridlock, and others to deeper issues.

Abolish the electoral college
The electoral college is an embarrassing white elephant, a relic from the Founders' suspicion of the people.  It enables candidates who lose the popular vote to win the election, and makes voters living in heavily red or blue states irrelevant.  The president would now be selected by the popular vote, and if no one candidate receives a majority of votes cast, a run-off between the top two vote-getters would be required.

Uniform voter registration
I find it rather insane that we have national elections, but individual states determine who gets to vote in them.  Thus some states ban all former criminals from voting, and use voter ID laws to suppress turnout.  I would like to see an amendment creating uniform voter qualifications, and ones that do not require ID.  I would be fine with such an amendment forbidding prisoners on felony charges from voting, but not one that would take away their votes for life.

Repeal the second amendment
The current interpretation of this amendment makes meaningful gun control legislation difficult to obtain.  Add to that the fact that the original amendment is ambiguously worded (it gives the right to bear arms to "the people" rather than to individual citizens.)  We are losing tens of thousands of people to gun violence each year, and need to have ways to seriously address the problem.  The 2nd Amendment was written by people who lived in a world of muskets; it has long outlived its original intent.

End Congress' control of the debt ceiling
Some claim that a proper interpretation of the 14th Amendment holds that Congress can't control the debt ceiling anyway, due to a clause saying that the debt of the United States can't be "questioned."  Congress gets to vote on the budget, which makes the debt ceiling redundant, and only useful as a tool for holding the public hostage.  These hostage crises threaten the nation's credit rating and serve no good purpose.

Increase the number of representatives in the House
The nation's population has reached three hundred million, but we still have the same number of representatives in the House as we did when the country was less than a third as populous as it is now.  House reps are more distant from their constituents than ever, and with larger districts gerrymandering is that much easier.  With smaller districts citizens will be able to better influence their representatives and have their voices listened to.

House districting put in the hands of non-partisan judicial panels
As mentioned before, gerrymandering is out of hand.  In the last election Democratic candidates for the House out-polled Republicans in the nationwide total, but the Republicans still won the House by a comfortable margin.  That would still be a shame in my eyes if the parties were reversed.

End corporate personhood
The pernicious doctrine of corporate personhood is one of the most malodorous legal fictions ever farted out by the judiciary.  It has given even more power to this nation's real rulers, allowed them to manipulate the political system, and to oppress their employees.  Ending corporate personhood is a common-sense idea whose time has come.

Equal Rights Amendment
Let's end on a positive note, shall we?  When I teach my students about the ERA and Phyllis Schlafly's successful push to keep it from passing, they are usually flabbergasted that such a common-sense amendment was defeated.  It's high time we brought it back, and this time the ERA should also include provisions banning discrimination on the basis of sexuality, as well as on gender.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Classic Music Video of the Week: Tina Turner, "We Don't Need Another Hero"

Back in the 1980s, before I developed a more sophisticated taste in music, I used to love to buy tapes of movie soundtracks.  The soundtracks to Ghostbusters and Top Gun were two of the first albums I owned, and I still remember all the words to obscure tracks like "Saving the Day." The moribund music industry gave itself a shot in the arm by attaching great singles ("Ghostbusters," "Take My Breath Away," "Danger Zone," etc.) and forgettable filler by second-tier acts on movie soundtracks, which were a great buy for singles-oriented casual listeners like myself.

I must sheepishly admit that "We Don't Need Another Hero" is one of my favorites amid the 1980s soundtrack genre.  In the first place, you have to love a post-apocalyptic movie set in Australia where soul singing belter Tina Turner plays the taupe-clothed, hairsprayed villain.  (It don't get more 80s than that, friends.)  In the second place, Turner can really sing a corny line like "all we want is life beyond the Thunderdome" with absolute, soul-shaking intensity and commitment.  Like all truly great pop songs of its era, it's got a killer sax solo to boot.  ("Baker Street" might be one of the most influential Top 40 hits ever.)  In the video, the guy playing it is sporting leather pants and a Hulk Hogan physique, which only adds to the awesomeness.

Like most of the soundtrack song videos, "We Don't Need Another Hero" features lots of film clips cut in to get the bored suburban teenagers watching MTV to get down to the multiplex and plunk their money down for a Mad Max movie.  The concept of the video is disarmingly simple: Tina in her movie costume belting out the song alone, lit from below like a goddess.  Of course, a children's choir comes in at the end, as if conjured by her divine command "all the children sing!"

Perhaps I like this song so much because it's the perfect example of a kitsch pie with an authentic center.  I have heard "We Don't Need Another Hero" so many times as muzak at shopping malls and dentists' offices, but the gritty soul in Tina Turner's performance refuses to be turned into musical wallpaper.  

Monday, January 7, 2013

Classic Albums: The Who, Quadrophenia

Concept albums are tricky things.  Some of my favorite albums are concept albums, but the organizing concepts behind them are loose enough that they don't overwhelm the songs.  The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper only really sticks with the concept at the start and at the end of the record.  Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon seems to drop and pick up the concept at will.  Even concept album stalwarts The Who let the whole commercial radio broadcast concept fade away on the second side of The Who Sell Out.  That record is significantly better than Tommy, which I've long found to be clunky and overrated.  That record lacks The Who's fire, and has too many mediocre songs driving obscure plot points along.  (Live versions of Tommy, where the band lets loose and drops extraneous songs, are actually pretty damn cool.  Just check out this version of "Sparks" from Live at Leeds.)

Quadrophenia was The Who's second crack at a rock opera, and even though it sticks hard to the concept and uses songs to tell a cohesive story, it works a whole helluva lot better than Tommy.  The main reason it works is that instead of some story about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a religious leader, Pete Townsend wrote a story closer to home.  It's the tale of a teenage mod in 1965, the type of kid who showed up to the band's shows back then.  He's going crazy, kicked out of his parents' home, unable to find steady work, and already feeling that life has passed him by.  Coming in the midst of 1973's oil crisis and economic recession, the elegiac mode implies a kind of funeral for the 1960s and all the youthful hopes wrapped up in that decade.

The mournful tone is set from the start, from the album's monochromatic gray cover to the spare piano chords over the sound of crashing surf that open the album.  Things kick into high gear pretty quickly after that with "(Can You See) The Real Me," where Jimmy the narrator discusses his mental illness.  This track is one the more ferocious up-tempo songs in the Who's repetoire, and one whose nervous energy embodies Jimmy's fractured mental state.  I first got into this album at exactly the right time, when I was in the midst of a bit of a mental trough myself.  It was during my junior year of college; I put on about twenty pounds and grew a scraggly beard to match.  I felt pretty damn confused about where my life was heading at that point, and this song gave me a feeling of kinship.  Too bad that confusion about my future lasted for another fifteen years or so.

Quadrophenia is a double album, and I have always preferred the first disc.  The songs are more cohesive, and set mood more than they do drive plot.  The instrumental "Quadrophenia" showcases The Who's use of synthesizers, which they probably did more ably than any other traditional rock band at the time.  "Cut My Hair" is a wonderfully tender song about the difficulties of fitting in.  "The Punk and the Godfather" rocks awfully hard, and is one of those rare moments when rock stars acknowledge their ambiguous relationship with their fans.  "I'm One" is one of those anthemic ballads that Townsend does better than anyone this side of Bruce Springsteen.  It's a beautiful song about finding solace in your own ostracism from others, and being proud of being unique.  (This tune was used to amazing effect in a scene from Freaks and Geeks.)

The second disc has always felt a little stretched, since there are more songs moving the plot along of Jimmy going down to Brighton (where the mods and rockers used to tustle) in order to find himself.  There are some real gems here, though.  For example, "5:15" and its overpowering horns really swing. "Bell Boy," with its hilariously goofy Keith Moon singing, uses that silly surface to mask one of the most devastating songs ever written about giving up on one's dreams.  (Jimmy spots the "ace face" of his mod days working as a bellboy, resigned to his fate.)

The album ends with "Love Reign O'er Me," a bombastic ballad whose effect depends on how you feel about Roger Daltrey's signing.  He really lets it all hang out, and the result can sound a little overwrought in places.  That said, when he belts out the line about "nights are hot and black as ink" I get a little chill down my spine.  Having listened to Pete's demo of the song, his interpretation of the song is more sensitive, and probably more fitting.

Quadrophenia is a true Who record, since it is flawed, like the band, but its flaws magnify its greatness.  Great music can't be made without a little daring and taking some risks, qualities that this record has in spades.  When I listen to it I remember the balm it provided for the confused young man that I used to be.  Nowadays I just appreciate its stellar musicianship, which I guess makes me more of a mod than a rocker.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Cavalcade of Reviews of Recent Civil War Books, Written by a Europeanist

Now that I am no longer an academic historian, I feel free to indulge myself in scholarly interests outside of my field of expertise (modern Germany).  I also primarily teach American history at my high school, and so feel an obligation to advance my knowledge of the field.  These impulses have dovetailed this year into a major binge of Civil War book reading.  With the current sesquecentennial, there have been a lot of new books on the topic published, so I figured this was a perfect time to explore the subject.

Like a lot of young male history buffs, I was really into the Civil War in my early teen years.  However, I only really understood the wonky battle side of things, and little regarding social or political history.  Recently the focus of my interests has reversed itself, and I am deeply obsessed with the political and social aspects of the war.  In retrospect, it appears to be the truest revolution in America's history.  Reading the current literature has only reinforced that perception.  Enough with all that, here are the reviews.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals
I felt a little guilty reading this book, considering Goodwin's disreputable past and allegations of plagiarism.  I also tend to think presidential history is one of the least innovative fields, yet somehow it is these historians who are always the talking heads on television.  My obsession with the political nature of the Civil War got so intense, however, that I just had to read this book.  Goodwin's thesis that Lincoln succeeded by putting together a disparate cabinet of men opposed to him, and then getting them to work together, is not totally proven.  At times the cabinet is incredibly fractious, and some members, like Salmon P. Chase, actively conspired against Lincoln.  By the time his presidency ended, Lincoln's cabinet only retained the loyalists, and the true rivals had resigned.  All that said, Goodwin writes well, and provides a fascinating window into the day-to-day political machinations that surrounded Lincoln.  While this book is a tad hagiographic, it does a fine job of showing how the rail splitter was not some aw-shucks country hick, but a master politician.  Lincoln was very skilled at reading the political winds and getting what he wanted out of his subordinates.

Adam Goodheart, 1861
This book looks at the beginning of the Civil War through a series of mostly fascinating episodes.  This work is what quality popular history ought to be: informed by primary research and engaging, but not oversimplified.  It's a kind of episodic look at the beginning of the war, mostly in terms of events in the North.  Goodheart uncovers some interesting stories, including German-American militias taking over St. Louis for the Union and the story behind the Zouaves  He writes exceptionally well and certainly shined a light on several fascinating aspects of the time that I did not know about before.  This is the perfect book for a long journey.

Richard Slotkin, The Long Road to Antietam
I've long liked Slotkin's work on the mythology of violence in American history, and was a little surprised to see that he's been writing a lot about the Civil War recently.  I wanted to read it partly because of his reputation, but also because it promised to be a history of the political revolution wrought by the war.  I already knew that Lincoln used the Union victory at Antietam as his moment to announce the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.  What really floored me, however, was Slotkin's look into the relationship between Lincoln and McClellan.  The latter was a Democrat who was opposed to emancipation, and was in correspondance with Lincoln's political enemies while still the leader of the Army of the Potomac.  Slotkin very persuasively argues that McClellan had designs on making himself the unquestioned Commander in Chief, and that many close to him wished that he would live up to his nickname of Little Napoleon by using his loyal army to make himself dictator.  Slotkin thus interprets McClellan's unwillingness to push hard at Antietam coming from a desire to preserve "his army" for his own purposes.  The main fault of this book is that when it comes to the battle, it switches from a fascinating story of power politics to an often tedious battlefield account overstuffed with troop movements.  While the sections on the preparation for battle take way too long to unfold, his evocation of the fighting itself is quite moving.

Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire
Man oh man was this book a disappointment.  It received every accolade you could throw at it when it came out, and even made the Times' 10 Best list last year.  The good reviews, as well as its angle on the Civil War, intrigued me.  Foreman takes as her subject the British involvement with the Civil War.  I was excited by the international perspective on the conflict, since it came at a particularly tumultuous time in world history when several other nations were unifying, engaging in civil war, or undergoing major social changes akin to emancipation in America.  In case you aren't convinced: the 1860s was the time of the Taiping Rebellion in China, the unification of Italy and Germany, the revolution against French rule in Mexico, the Meiji Restoration in Japan, the Paraguayan War, and the end of serfdom in Russia.

While Foreman writes exceptionally well, her volumnious history often drifts away from her ostensible topic and gets bogged down in detailed explanations of specific battles.  There is too much going on here, and too many distractions from what was supposed to make this work unique.  Even worse, the politics of the book are awful.  Her view of the war could have come straight out of Gone With the Wind, with slavery sidelined and much ink spilled over murderous Yankees wreaking havoc on poor Southern families.  Foreman admits she has mostly put slavery aside, but claims that this is okay, since plenty of other people have written about it.  She also buries any notion that Great Britain was an empire whose actions a few years earlier in 1857 suppressing revolts in India make Sherman's March look like a walk in the park.  (Sherman was not having rebels blown to bits point blank with cannons, for example.)  I am still amazed that so many reviewers had so many good words to say about this book.  Yes, it does a persuasive job of showing an alarmingly high level of Confederate sympathy in Britain, and its does offer rich and engaging portraits of figures like Lord Palmerston and William Seward.  However, this book is all frippery and glittering surface used in the service of a sweeping and romantic story that simply ignores the main reason for the whole conflict in the first place.  I tried to enjoy the stories and the characters, but the politics of this book made it a frustrating read.

Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning
I really learned a lot from this book, which takes the Confederacy seriously as an experiment in statecraft and as the attempt to make particular social model a reality.  McCurry argues that the Confederacy sought a system dominated by slavery, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the rule of a small class of planter elites.  What makes this book great is that McCurry takes the next step, and analyzes how many people in the South, especially slaves and white women, resisted a system that was so obviously detrimental to them.  While the scale of resistance is asserted more at times that proved, I came away persuaded of her basic thesis.  Beyond that, instead of the old bs about the Civil War being a conflict of "brother against brother," it was really a war between two contrasting political economies.  The South lost in large part because so many of its people did not buy into the Confederacy's social vision.  However, the Confederacy's alchemy of white supremacy, patriarchy, and elite economic rule still seems to excite many on the far Right in this country.

Eric Foner, This Fiery Trial
I'd been wanting to read this book since I heard Foner give a keynote address at a conference a couple of years ago when he presented some of his research from this book about Lincoln's views on slavery.  I'd long known that Lincoln's words and policies on slavery had changed and vacillated to a great extent.  Foner does a fantastic job of explaining the reasons for this, as well as grounding Lincoln's views on slavery in his political context.  In Foner's rendering, Lincoln comes across as a truly political animal in ways that the usual hagiographic explanations totally miss.  While he personally disliked slavery, he did not move against it until the political winds blew in that direction and the slaves themselves had greatly undermined the institution.  Lincoln was not out front on the slavery question, but neither did he resist emancipation when the opportunity presented itself.  Foner essentially shows Lincoln to be a moderate Republican of his time in regards to slavery.  This is a great book, not least because Foner avoids both the hero-worshipping of other books on Lincoln, as well as tiresome revisionist scolding.  Reading this book I came away seeing Lincoln as fundamentally a politician at heart, and in a strange way, that demystification has given me a greater appreciation of what he managed to accomplish, even if he often did not act up to the heroic standards that we assume he embodied.  Most jarring in this regard was the revelation of Lincoln's support of the colonization of former slaves, which persisted even after he came around on emancipation.

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Folk Music Playlist For a Dreary Winter

Apart from my visit with my family in Nebraska after Christmas, the onset of winter has me down.  The death of a close friend, bone-chilling weather, and the complete disfunction of our political system have me down.  Add to that the fact that we have now entered the worst time of the year.  After New Year's all the holiday fun is over, and there's really nothing to look forward to until the the trees start to bud and the flowers bloom.  Last year my newfound appreciation of hockey gave me something to enjoy during the pitiless months of January, February, and March, but thanks to Gary Bettman I don't even get that solace right now.  At least I am no longer a devout Catholic, since my Lenten sacrifices used to make the dreariness of late winter even more intense.

I experienced the most intense winters of my life during my time in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  The skies stayed gray for about four months, the air freezing, and snow was almost a daily experience.  During my first Michigan winter, I discovered a love of folk music that I never knew I had before, and that genre worked like a warm blanket for my soul.

Richard and Linda Thompson, "End of the Rainbow"
I've listened to this song a lot since the Newtown massacre.  I know of no other song that so baldly lays out the cruelty of life.  Since it's an adult talking to a child, it also keys into a dark feeling of mine that I was irresponsible to bring new life into this horror of a world.  At the end of the day, I was being selfish.

Joan Baez, "There But for Fortune"
I know the vocal stylings of Moany Joany aren't for everyone, but I am always moved by this cover of a song by the great Phil Ochs.  It seems that fewer and fewer people these days look at the suffering of their fellow human beings, and tell themselves "there but for the grace of God go I."  In fact, the Republican party, supposedly so in tune with God, seems devoted to the proposition that the wretched of earth brought their own fate upon themselves.

Gordon Lightfoot, "If You Could Read My Mind"
I'd always disdained Gord a little, but my interest in folk led me to appreciate him.  I listened to this song intensely when I first moved to Michigan and my relationship with my girlfriend of four years was breaking up.  There's perhaps no better song about the sadness of a relationship gone stale.  Or at least that's how I hear it.

Tim Buckley, "Morning Glory"
The meaning of this song eludes me somewhat, I but I've interpreted it as a parable of the unknowability of others.  We are all windowless monads, in Leibniz's terminology, and not capable of truly putting ourselves in the shoes of others.  In the meantime, we can only do our best to empathize with our fellow human travelers in the rocky journey of life.  Even if the meaning is obscure, Tim Buckley's voice is as sublime as it gets.

Leonard Cohen, "The Stranger Song"
Leave it to a Canadian to have made the perfect album for staying inside on a bitterly cold day (The Songs of Leonard Cohen.)  This is my favorite track, especially the line about "reaching for the sky just to surrender."

Nick Drake, "Pink Moon"
The eponymous album this song comes from is one of my favorites for personal meditation.  I use it to get the girls to go to sleep at night, I just hope I'm not turning them into depressives.  This song is like a musical space heater for the cold rooms of my heart despite its blue moods.

Ian and Sylvia, "Four Strong Winds"
This winter I am missing my friends, they seem so hard to find in my new location.  Perhaps I'm just too damn old to make new friends anymore.  There are those that I miss living in faraway places, and sadly one who lives no more.  This song used to get me misty-eyed thinking about my grad school comrades, now it has taken on a special meaning.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Re-Run: Reasons to Be Glad I Am Not Attending the American Historical Association's Annual Conference

This weekend the American Historical Association's annual conference takes place in New Orleans.  My experience at the conference came mostly from being a job applicant for six awful years. It took me three cracks to get a tenure-track job, and then three increasingly futile stabs at finding an escape from that nightmare of a job. I spent about six months of each year in a six year period wracked with anxiety and self-doubt and an extra layer of stress on top of an already stressful existence. In 2010 I went to the conference in San Diego without an interview because I was flogging a book manuscript. Later on in the hunt some phone interviews and an on campus interview at least materialized. For the 2010-11 search, I did not get a single interview for a university position, AHA or not, despite having better qualifications than ever (more on that below.) I had yet another article in print and a book contract, but apparently that didn't mean anything.

Not being on the market feels liberating, but strange. Last year, like some kind of sick junky, I watched the job ads and looked closely at the ones I could apply to. This year I looked maybe once, mostly because I have made peace with the fact that I am never going back to a university position.  This year I thought of going, partly to reenergize my scholarship, but mostly to see old friends and a city (New Orleans) I never visited before.  I soon came to my senses, and remembered that caring for my daughters and avoiding the pit of bullshit and despair that I knew awaited me in the Big Easy were more important.

Below you'll find what I wrote about the annual AHA conference this time two years ago, without the knowledge that I would find a wonderful teaching position at an independent high school in New York City. Although I rue my exit from the profession I spent my adult life a member of, my feelings about the AHA conference are pretty much the same today as when I wrote this post.


 This coming January will be the first since 2005 that I will not be attending the American Historical Association's annual conference. Because none of the schools where I applied invited me to dance, and because my book manuscript is now under contract (eliminating the need to kiss the asses of publishers), the expense didn't seem justifiable. I am little bummed that I am passing up a chance to see Boston (a place I've never been), and certainly wish I could see many old friends who will be attendance. However, I have plenty of good reasons to be happy about not going.

First and foremost, I will not miss the job annex, a place emanating a most powerful musk of fear and desperation. It represents much that has gone wrong with my profession: young scholars must humiliate themselves in an academic meat-market where they compete in a Darwinian struggle for a dwindling number of tenure track jobs. It's especially great if you have to deal with committee members who are out to lunch, senile, or just plain hostile.

Largely because of my rural, lower-middle class upbringing, I have a strong distaste for brown-nosing, status mongering, social climbing, pretentiousness, intellectual dick-waving, and institutionalized elitism. All of these are on display to rather disgusting extremes at the AHA. I loathe watching people check out the name tags of others, to see if they're worth talking to. My stomach turns when I overhear smug children of privilege brag about their number of job interviews. And I positively gag when I attend panels where someone who attended the same Ivy League institution where they now teach prattles on about some obscure tradition at that place like the rest of us should fucking care about it. The next person who tells me that academia is a meritocracy is going to get a neck-punching.

Last but not least, I can no longer simply stomach the sound of a violin playing in the midst of a great fire. Never has the metaphor of emperor Nero been more apt, despite recent efforts by the organization to address the jobs crisis. Last year the book display had an ominous number of empty spaces, and the job annex looked less like a bustling hive of anxiety and more like a lonely nave of dead dreams. As I have said many times before, the university-based historical profession is dying before our eyes, but the vast majority who have managed to get tenure-track jobs have preferred to relish their place in the lifeboat rather than to do anything for their peers who are drowning to death all around them. The lifeboarters will survive and get to live the great academic dream; my only solace is, to paraphrase Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of moral crisis, do nothing.